In “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons for Modern Russia” Yegor Gaidar writes “[w]e are not the first to suffer post-empire nostalgia, which permeates the Russian consciousness today. It has occurred in history more than once. The Soviet Union was not the first empire to collapse in the twentieth century, but it was the last. … The problem for a country dealing with post-imperial syndrome is that it is easy to evoke feelings of nostalgia for the lost empire.”[i] It is easy to see the effect of the “post-imperial syndrome” in how the Russian population supports Putin’s actions in the Crimea. What may be less easy to see is how that syndrome is affecting us.
When the Soviet Union fell apart the United States was an unchallenged military leviathan; the only superpower on the planet. Our military divided the earth into sectors of military control overseen by geographical combatant commanders. We projected power across the globe, and we still do. However, since we won the Cold War the U.S. military has been involved in two less than totally successful campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan. In those wars we fought an enemy who did not use the conventional tactics and systems that we had perfected over the last half of the twentieth century. As those counterinsurgency operations come to a close the military today looks to regain its past prominence as a conventional fighting force.
Russia’s land grab has offered us that opportunity. This new confrontation in Europe comes complete with convenient historical examples. Russia, with its quasi-dictatorial leadership, makes the perfect enemy. We can see the long shadow of Hitler in his actions, replaying the events of Czechoslovakia in 1938, only the first steps in his quest for German “living space”. Further, this is the Soviets, … err, … I mean, the Russians we are talking about. It was not that long ago that they were a threat to capitalist societies around the world. History dictates that we must act now. There is the added bonus of the Russians being a conventional force. We know how to fight them. Most of the equipment we now have was designed in the era where BMPs, T-90s, and Hind-Ds were the threat to defeat.
But before we jump into this with both feet, perhaps it is worth considering Sun Tzu’s advise to know not just your enemy, but yourself. How much of our interests in re-engaging Russia in a battle of wills is an attempt to regain our own former military glory? Secretary Gates characterizes Putin’s actions this time around as a direct challenge to America – Putin had “thrown down a gauntlet.”[ii] Putin’s action is not about Russians in Crimea or even Russian territorial and military interests there. In reading blogs on places like the Small Wars Journal one would believe that the Ukrainians are simply caught in the cross-fire between Russia and the United States, helpless pawns in the U.S. versus the U.S.S.R., Round Two. Why do we choose to characterize the situation this way? Perhaps it is because we are also trying to regain our former military glory. Here is an enemy the entire country can fear. Putin is Stalin and Hitler all rolled into one. Here too, is a military we can confront on conventional terms where we have the clear advantage. This is the perfect combination to provide us the opportunity to reassert our dominance and regain our status as the undefeatable military leader of the world!
So before we turn the Kremlin into radioactive ash, we need to consider that the world is no longer a bi-polar place. This is not capitalism versus communism. Putin is not after “living space.” He has extra-territorial aspirations, but he is probably not looking to invade France. Our allies in Europe have their own interests in how this confrontation plays out that may not align with our need to beat Russia into submission. More important, we need to understand how our own recent history is affecting our decision making process. We should not let nostalgia motivate our response; two former enemy’s both attempting to regain past glory is a recipe for disaster.
If we recognize how our history is affecting how we view this situation, then perhaps we can make some rational long term decisions on how to deal with a leader trying to regain his nation’s former status. If we fail to recognize our own nostalgia, then we are likely to see only what we want to see, and make the kind of mistakes reminiscent more of WWI than of WWII.
[i] Gaidar, Yergor. “Collapse of an Empire: Lessons from Modern Russia.” Translated by Abtonia W. Bouis. 2007. Washington, D.C.; Brookings Institution Press. P.
[ii] Gates, Robert M. “Putin’s Challenge to the West: Russia has thrown down a gauntlet that is not limited to Crimea or even Ukraine.” The Wall Street Journal. March 25, 2014. http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303725404579460183854574284 (accessed April 15, 2014)